Strep throat is a bacterial throat infection that can make your throat feel sore and scratchy. Compared with a viral throat infection, strep throat symptoms are generally more severe. Only a small portion of sore throats are the result of strep throat.
It's important to identify strep throat for a number of reasons. If untreated, strep throat can sometimes cause complications such as kidney inflammation and rheumatic fever. Rheumatic fever can lead to painful and inflamed joints, a rash and even damage to heart valves.
Strep throat is most common between the ages of 5 and 15, but it affects people of all ages. If you or your child has signs or symptoms of strep throat, see your doctor for prompt treatment.
In general, signs and symptoms of strep throat include:
It's possible for you or your child to have many of these signs and symptoms, but not have strep throat. The cause of these signs and symptoms could be a viral infection or some other kind of illness. That's why your doctor generally tests specifically for strep throat.
It's also possible to have the bacteria that can cause strep in your throat without having a sore throat. Some people are carriers of strep, which means they can pass the bacteria on to others, but the bacteria are not currently making them sick.
When to see a doctor
The cause of strep throat is bacteria known as Streptococcus pyogenes, or group A streptococcus.
Streptococcal bacteria are highly contagious. They can spread through airborne droplets when someone with the infection coughs or sneezes, or through shared food or drinks. You can also pick up the bacteria from a doorknob or other surface and transfer them to your nose or mouth.
Several factors can increase your risk of strep throat infection:
Although strep throat itself isn't dangerous, it may lead to serious complications — sometimes even with treatment.
Spread of infection
The risk of developing severe complications from strep throat is low in the United States.
Preparing for your appointment
If you or your child has signs and symptoms common to strep throat, make an appointment with your family doctor or a general practitioner. Because appointments can be brief, and because there's often a lot of ground to cover, it's a good idea to be well prepared for your appointment.
Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment, and what to expect from your doctor.
Information to prepare in advance
Your time with your doctor is limited, so preparing a list of questions ahead of time will help you make the most of your time together. List your questions from most important to least important in case time runs out.
For strep throat, some basic questions to ask your doctor include:
In addition to the questions that you've prepared to ask your doctor, don't hesitate to ask questions during your appointment at any time that you don't understand something.
What to expect from your doctor
What you can do in the meantime
Rest, fluids, soft foods and pain relievers such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, others) or acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) may ease symptoms. A gargle of 1/4 teaspoon (1.2 milliliters) of table salt in 8 ounces (237 milliliters) of warm water also may help. Avoid giving aspirin to young children and teenagers.
Tests and diagnosis
Doctors usually diagnose the cause of a sore throat on the basis of a physical exam and lab tests.
During the exam, your doctor looks for signs and symptoms of strep throat, such as fever and enlarged lymph nodes, and will probably use a tongue depressor to get a good look at the throat and tonsils.
Your doctor will check for redness, swelling, and white streaks or pus on the tonsils. There also may be tiny red spots on the soft or hard palate — the area at the back of the roof of the mouth. Although these signs indicate an infection, appearance alone doesn't indicate whether it's viral or bacterial. In fact, some viral throat infections look worse than infections caused by streptococcal bacteria.
For that reason, your doctor is likely to use one or more of the following tests to check for the presence of bacteria, including streptococcal bacteria:
Treatments and drugs
A number of medications are available to cure strep throat, relieve its symptoms and prevent its spread.
If you or your child is allergic to penicillin, your doctor likely may prescribe:
These antibiotics reduce the duration and severity of symptoms, as well as the risk of complications and the likelihood that infection will spread to classmates or family members.
Once treatment begins, you or your child should start feeling better in just a day or two. Call your doctor if you or your child doesn't feel better after taking antibiotics for 48 hours.
If children on antibiotic therapy feel well and don't have a fever, they often can return to school or child care when they're no longer contagious — usually 24 hours after beginning treatment. But be sure to finish the entire course of medicine. Stopping medication early may lead to recurrences and serious complications, such as rheumatic fever or kidney inflammation.
Because of the risk of Reye's syndrome, a potentially life-threatening illness, don't give aspirin to young children and teenagers. Be careful with acetaminophen, too. Taken in large doses, it can cause liver problems. Read and follow label directions. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist if you have questions.
Lifestyle and home remedies
In most cases, antibiotics will quickly wipe out the bacteria causing the infection. In the meantime, try these tips to relieve symptoms of strep throat:
To prevent strep infection:
Last Updated: 2010-06-26
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